There’s a bit on a reality drama called The Real Housewives of New York City where one of the show’s stars, Sonja Morgan says, “Walk of shame? I prefer to call it a victory lap!” Bad taste in television aside, I was struck by that statement. Why had I never thought of it before?
I’ve never been ‘shamed’ by the walk of shame, per se. I remember borrowing t-shirts from boyfriends to wear over last night’s dress so I could comfortably catch a rickshaw without looking like I was wearing spangles and heels at noon. That was when I lived in Mumbai. In Delhi, the ‘walk’ was more like a ‘drive’— I imagine nowadays it’s the Uber of Shame — which takes away from the very meaning of it, of having to display to all and sundry that you’re still in last night’s clothes, meaning that you never went home at all, meaning that... wink wink, nudge nudge.
Usually I teetered home alone, ignoring all the pointed looks the auto rickshaw drivers gave me — or were they pointed? Maybe it was just my imagination. But one memorable time, I was having coffee with a man while still wearing the clothes I had put on the night before. We were involved secretly, as one so often is in their twenties, and thinking ourselves very smart for passing off as friends. Along came two other friends, unexpectedly for that early hour, saw me, and jumped to instant (and correct) conclusions. But then too, my walk of shame — or coffee of shame — wasn’t so much something to be embarrassed by, but rather a sort of triumph. Look at me, I’m grown up, I do these things! I knew I was supposed to be coy about the whole thing, so I pretended for a while, looking flustered, my face growing hot; but I remember the grin I couldn’t wipe off my face.
The walk of shame is usually done by a woman. If you’re a regular viewer of Game of Thrones , you might recall the scene in which the scheming queen Cersei finally gets her comeuppance. She’s forced to crop her hair, and walk naked through a crowd till she reaches the palace, all the while with a woman behind her ringing a bell and intoning, “Shame. Shame. Shame.” Cersei’s head is up through the scene, if she’s crying, she doesn’t want us to know it; occasionally she flinches when some townspeople call out crude remarks at her, but it’s only when she reaches her palace that she allows herself to weep. The website Mental Floss points out that this was actually based on a true event, the mistress of King Edward IV, was blamed for sorcery after the king developed scoliosis.
In modern-day parlance, the walk of shame originated less esoterically. It comes from college campuses where women students would walk back to their dorms after a night of — presumably — passion. In urban India, PLUs have taken up the phrase with great gusto, right down to its woman-shaming connotations. It’s not so much the idea that you’re wearing last night’s clothes, it’s more that you’ve had sex and having had sex, you’re daring to wave it in people’s faces. Of course, in India, it has whole layers of new meaning. Most of us live in neighbourhoods where we have a relationship with everyone — from the vegetable vendor to the shopkeeper to the garbage lady.
In the Bandra house I lived in with two other girls, our garbage man practised a peculiar form of intimidation: he’d pull out a used condom from our trash — usually hidden deep in the recesses of an empty cigarette packet to keep him from seeing it, and leave it on our doorstep. We never knew why he did it, he never made eye contact, and yet, no matter how carefully we hid the fact that we might have had sex the night before, he’d find a way of letting us know he knew.
I had an equally strange relationship with my local chemist in Delhi; I just could not buy condoms from him. Shampoo yes, toilet paper yes, even sanitary pads, yes, but for condoms I went to neighbourhoods far away from mine and purchased them there, feeling a strange mixture of guilt and defiance. Similarly, when I needed a pregnancy test, as we all must have done at some point or the other in our sexual histories, I wrote down the name of the brand I wanted, and shoved the piece of paper across the glass counter to the chemist. He proceeded to shout out my order across the shop, and everyone stared at me, their own mental bells ringing, “Shame!” so loudly, I swear they resonated in my head. And what is a walk of shame without coming face-to-face with the aunty across the hall who has forgotten what it was like to be young and foolish once? You live in fear of this aunty because she could call your landlord and tell him about your deviant ways (“Coming home at all hours! Bringing home strange men!”). I’ve been refused flats for less.
But I’ll end with a happy story: with the man who has been my partner for over four years now. One of our first evenings — and mornings together — I was going to leave him a note saying goodbye and this was fun and we must do this again sometime — all platitudes I was practised in, by being the Cool Girl who didn’t Demand Too Much from men, thereby scaring them off (as a single woman, I was told putting too much pressure on a man was a cardinal sin). Instead, I woke him up and we both went for a walk — and we both wore the clothes we had on the night before. We drank coffee and watched the early morning light, and it was beautiful and intimate and the opposite of shame after all.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is an author, most recently of Before And Then After
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